Self-talk is considered one of the main psychological strategies for developing a better mental state in sports context and it can take several forms: positive (motivational), instructional and negative (Weinberg & Gould, 2003). Self talk is also being used as a tool for elite football coaches to handle pressure and being able to maintain a proper focus during competitive situations (Freitas et al., 2013).
Positive self-talk is designed to increase motivation, energy, effort and positive attitude, but it does not have a clear instructional message e.g. “Work hard”, “Stay positive”, “I can do it”. Several athletes use cues like this in different parts of their training and competitions to canalize energy to endure and perform at a higher level .
Instructional self-talk focuses more on making the individual pay attention to technical and specific tasks which helps the athlete perform better and with a higher standard of execution (Weinberg & Gould, 2003). The use of this strategy could be interpreted as “being your own coach” – with self-messages as: “Stay in balance”, “Eyes on the ball”, “Look before passing the ball”. These short words master-coaches use for maximizing development and technical quality could well be used by the individual for staying focused.
A potential dysfunctional side is negative self-talk. This kind of self-coaching are often prohibiting performance and should be avoided. The phrases often used in this self-dialogue are typically: “You are bad”, “I can`t make it”, “This is too hard for me”, “I can`t push harder”. This kind of mindset does not improve performance much and could add to the athletes anxiety levels and foster self doubt. Interestingly – studies have revealed that 70-80% of our merely 66,000 thoughts are negatively charged – seemingly there is a large potential for development in this area for all of us, but specifically for top performers to excel.
So how could we potentially use these strategies for developing performance among athletes and in our general lives?
A recent study has investigated the use of self-talk in endurance settings and concluded that use of motivational and instructional self-talk significantly enhances physical endurance compared to a control group (Blanchfield, Hardy, De Morree, Stain & Marcora, 2014). The group of researchers clearly advocates the use of psychobiological interventions for developing performance in endurance settings.
Seemingly there could be a large potential for athletes to develop a battery of keywords that accompanies different phases of performance settings. The researchers points out that to develop motivational self-talk strategies that fits with you as a person and the context of the actual performance is a central element for success (Blanchfield et al, 2014).
Another interesting study by the psychologist John Bargh and colleagues (1996) tested the potential priming effect related to words associated with older people; “forgetful, bald, wrinkle” etc, and it`s impact on young adults (18-22 years of age) walking speed from one room to another. The task was to assemble four-word sentences out of a set of five words (ex; “finds he it yellow instantly). The experimental group which had words associated with older peoples behaviour, walked significantly slower over the same distance compared to the group that had not been primed with age-related words. The research subjects did not recall being exposed to any sentences referring to anything that could potentially prime their actions afterwards. They did not believe they had been influenced by any of the sentences they had been assembling in the classroom.
There are several studies pointing out the positive and negative side-effects of self talk or even the subconscious effect of our brain being primed with words and thoughts that actively steer our behaviour. If thoughts and words can have this impact on our actions and performance – why should we not use this kind of strategy to our best interest?
Be aware on how you talk to yourself in sport context and in daily life in general. Make a list of motivational and instructional keywords to use in different settings, for example:
Performance enhancement situations where you need extra energy, extra focus on technical execution, when to keep pushing and how hard, when to keep a calm mind. Distinguish also when to be motivational and when to be instructive in your inner dialogue, to maximise efficiency.
Be aware that the words and thoughts you use daily and in performance settings will affect your level of perfomance, general well being and self confidence.
If you take control over your thoughts and trigger-words, the ground for potentially developing a better performance climate in your mind increases.
Good luck developing your mindset in performance settings!